Many thanks to Bryan Rendell for sending this information on a Chepstow hero, and the annual Anzac Day parade that the town performs each year.
Able Seaman William Charles William VC
100 years ago, Able Seaman William Charles Williams’ heroic action at the Gallipoli Landing on 25th April 1915 which won him the Victoria Cross, also won him a special place in Chepstow’s heart. He is honoured by two public memorials, the German U boat gun in Beaufort Square and a painting in St Mary’s Priory & Parish Church, as well as a display in Chepstow Museum, and every year a service at 11am on Gallipoli day when wreaths are laid on the Memorial Gun.
William Charles Williams was born 15th September 1880 in Ludlow, then in the Stanton Lacy Parish, Shropshire, but by 1891 the family were in Chepstow, where his father William Williams worked as a gardener and the young William as a labourer, before he joined the Royal Navy in December 1895. On his 18th birthday he signed for a further 12 years’ service and in 1899-1900 was ‘recommended for bravery’ as a member of HMS Terrible’s Naval Brigade during the Boer War and in China during the Boxer Rising.
Completing his regular service with the Royal Navy in 1910, he joined the Royal Fleet Reserve and returned to Monmouthshire to work at Lysaght’s Orb Steel Works in Newport and in the County Police Force. At the outbreak of War he was recalled to active service joining HMS Hussar in September 1914 which came under the command of Edwin Unwin in February 1915. Preparations were in progress for the ill-fated Gallipoli Campaign and the landings at V Beach were expected to meet fierce opposition. Large numbers of troops needed to be landed quickly. The plan was that strings of open boats of men would be towed to the shore by trawlers but these could only take 300 men at a time, not nearly enough to secure success in the first vital hour. It was Unwin’s idea that a ‘specially prepared ship’ might be rammed ashore from which 2,000 infantry would pour from a series of ‘doors’ cut into her sides, then dash along specially rigged gangways to the prow where a flat bottomed hopper would be positioned to form a bridge for the troops to reach the shallows. As a precaution some extra ‘lighters’ or barges, specially decked, would be towed behind the hopper to fill any gaps in the floating bridge to the shore. So the SS River Clyde a ten year old coal ship was converted. Unwin, promoted to the rank of acting captain, had responsibility for carrying out his own plan and took with him 15 volunteers from his ship HMS Hussar including Williams.
On 25th April, as the first wave of towed boats were within a few yards of the shore, ‘Hell burst loose on them’ as the Turkish defenders lashed the open boats with machine gun fire. The River Clyde ran ashore further away from the beach than intended which meant the plan to use the hopper as a bridge couldn’t work. The unwieldy lighters were brought into position but drifted apart leaving the men unable to cross the incomplete bridge being mown down in droves. Unwin and Williams secured a rope to the drifting end of the bridge of lighters and wading through the sea heaved it towards a line of rocks that ran to the shore. But the rope was too short to tie round the rocks and so Unwin and Williams, chest-deep in water, held it in position so that men could cross the bridge to the shore, while Midshipman Drewry went to get another length from the ship. All the time, machine gun fire rained down and after nearly an hour Williams was hit by a shell. Unwin carried him on board and Williams died in his arms.
Able Seaman William Charles Williams was the first ever naval posthumous award of the Victoria Cross, which his father received from the King at Buckingham Palace in 1916. Williams was one of five to receive the highest award for gallantry that day for their work in holding the line of lighters, a sixth was won for rescuing wounded men from the water’s edge. By 9am, when the action was halted, more than 1,000 men had been lost in the attempt to disembark.
On 8th January 1922, three war memorials were unveiled in Chepstow. As well as the cenotaph, the Gun presented to the town by George V was unveiled by Mrs Frances Smith, Williams’ eldest sister, and Captain Unwin VC unveiled the painting of the landing of the SS River Clyde by Charles Dixon in the Church in honour of the bravest sailor he ever met ‘the man above all others who deserved the VC at the landing’.